Pre-election nooses forgotten in city scarred by racism history
JACKSON, MISS. | History surrounds the Capitol building in the heart of downtown here, but not all of it is welcoming.
In the park behind the building is a massive granite slab carved with the Confederacy’s battle flag emblem and praising the women — mothers, wives, daughters and sisters — whose “zealous faith in our cause” did so much in the Civil War.
On the morning of Nov. 26, the park’s oak trees also had nooses, two menacing talismans bringing Mississippi’s dark past to the forefront a day before the state was poised to vote in a runoff election for a U.S. Senate seat.
The nooses sparked headlines from the U.S. to Ireland to Japan. American cable television news networks in particular suggested their placement was the latest racetinged move meant to affect black voters.
Authorities vowed swift investigation to find the culprit.
“We are actively looking into these acts of hate and intimidation,” U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst said at the time. “If we find evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that a federal crime has occurred, these criminals will be swiftly prosecuted.”
Weeks later, however, no one has been arrested, let alone prosecuted, on charges in the incident. Officials with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation report nothing daily, a spokeswoman for Mr. Hurst’s office seemed unfamiliar with the incident and the FBI declined to comment.
Judging by the handwritten signs scattered below the nooses, it’s possible they were meant less as intimidation and more as a rallying cry — an indictment of Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.
During a Nov. 2 appearance with a small crowd in Tupelo, the senator accepted a speaking engagement proffered by a supporter. If he “invited me to a public hanging, I would be in the front row,” she said.
That comment also earned national headlines — and may have been the impetus for the nooses.
“We’re hanging nooses to remind people that times haven’t changed,” read one of the signs with the nooses.
In a 2014 case involving public nooses, drunken fraternity men at the University of Mississippi disgraced themselves and a campus statue of James Meredith, the first black person to enroll at Ole Miss, by putting a noose on it with the Georgia state flag, which then included the Confederacy’s stars and bars.
Federal officials were relentless. Three students were arrested, and one of them was given prison time in September 2015 after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of “using a threat of force to intimidate.” A second student pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in March 2016.
The incident last month, on the other hand, seems forgotten, and residents expressed doubt that anyone would ever pay for it.
“That’s not going to happen here,” said Jackie Abron, 46, who works in security along President Street on the park’s eastern edge. She said she saw the signs that morning but not the nooses.
Ms. Abron, with two other black women around the park, said they weren’t afraid of the nooses. They scoffed at the stereotype that such hateful displays are typical of Mississippi.
But they were understandably upset that people would escape any penalty for the act.
“It’s kind of shocking, and it’s disheartening these things are still going on,” said Francine Towns, 70, who works at the Marriott Hotel a couple of blocks away from the Capitol. “If no one does anything about it, I have a problem with that because if nothing is being done about it, then it must be acceptable behavior.”
Ms. Towns said she would like the perpetrators to be identified and punished, although she is skeptical that will happen.
“But I don’t think the God I serve has a white section and a black section in heaven, and I’m grateful for that,” she said.
It’s not clear whether investigators have developed any leads. Although security cameras aren’t visible in the trees, a security detail at the governor’s entrance behind the Capitol said the grounds are under video surveillance.
No group has claimed responsibility, and some see the intent as a significant difference compared with other incidents.
“The story that ought to be is one that gives people pause about what HydeSmith said,” said Douglas Bristol, a history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Mr. Bristol pointed out that the last legal public hanging in Mississippi was in 1940, before Ms. Hyde-Smith was born, and thus her reference to one could hardly be construed to refer to some lawful execution.
Ms. Hyde-Smith won her re-election bid — and Ms. Towns and Ms. Abron seemed certain that the noose investigation is about as done as the election.
“They say they’re investigating this, but they’re not,” Ms. Abron said. “Things like this are like potholes: They tell us they’re fixing them, but we’re still driving over them.”